Saturday, June 25, 2016

Beware: Shortcuts of reading the Bible

We are a society that loves shortcuts, but they can be dangerous. So you can be warned, this is not all original material by myself... In fact, most of the basic information is not mine at all but from the book The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight (which I recommend you read). In it, he challenges readers to rethink how they read the Bible... One particularly interesting chapter titled "Inkblots and Puzzles" discusses five different shortcuts people take in reading the Bible. I decided to offer my thoughts on these, as I have been guilty of all of them at one time or another and thought others could benefit from these as well. Hopefully you will read the book as well as my thoughts, but I hope my thoughts can be beneficial to you as well.

The way McKnight lays these shortcuts out has helped me to grow in my relationship with God. When I have used these in the past, I have focused more on using the Bible as a tool for debate, condensing what it contains to suit my needs, and even using it to divide me from other people who love God. The scary thing is, I DIDN'T REALIZE I WAS DOING IT. I was not trying to use these shortcuts, they just happened because I was not guarding myself against them. They are all around us from books we read, sermons we hear, and conversations we have. It scared me to look at how I had taken something as precious as God's Story, The Bible, and reduced it to something so much less because I focused it on myself and what I wanted and was focused on rather than letting God work through me with all the Bible is.

Before I get into the shortcuts, I first need to let you know that McKnight challenges the readers to view the Bible as a story, God's story, told by different authors in different times in different ways based on the different authors and their contexts. Read his book for more information on that; he does a very good job laying it out and applying what that means for how we read the Bible. In the meantime, I want to look at ways people read the Bible that keep them from getting the most from it.

Shortcut 1: Morsels of the Law

The Bible has sections that are laws, there is no way around it.  However, some people view the Bible as a collection of laws, from which they pull from to make their arguments on why they do or do not do something.  From this thinking, in order to have a relationship with God, you have to follow the commands.  Rabbis found 613 in the Old Testament alone, and people today pick and choose what they want to follow from both the Old Testament and the New... Do not mistake what I am saying to mean that Christians should not consider laws and commands... 1 John 5:3 says to Love God is to keep his commands, and Psalm 119 talks about delighting in God's laws... However, passages like Romans 8 discuss how we have been set free from the Law... There are laws in the Bible, but as Jesus's reprimand to the Pharisees reminds us, there is much more to religion and a relationship with God than following laws. Focusing too much on laws (old or new testament) leads to people drawing lines and having to see everyone outside their lines as enemies. The greatest commands of loving God and loving others frees us to view the Bible as a story from different places, times, and people to expand our thinking from viewing the Bible as a collection of rules and therefore fighting with others on trying to get everything right.

Adding some more of my thoughts to this, I fully believe the Pharisees were trying to do the right thing by adding on additional laws and trying to clarify rules God has set up, but God is more interested in setting people free than restraining them. I look at the people of Israel being freed from captivity in Egypt, freed from rule of neighboring nations, freed from captivity, and how Paul discusses the freedom that is in Christ from the Old Law. This freedom God gives allows people to express themselves, love God/others, and serve in whatever way God calls them to. God is the creator of the rules and thus calls people to do things that fit in with those rules, even if it does seem rebellious, heretical, or strange to the people they are around.

Shortcut 2: Morsels of blessings and promises

It is very tempting to take the parts of the Bible people want (or that you in particular want) and apply it to yourself.  To say to yourself on Monday "Do not be anxious", remind yourself God "knew you in your mother's womb" on Tuesday, and to quote "my God my God why have you forsaken me?" on Wednesday when things do not go well leads to a hollow faith.  Not that those verses are not useful—they are—but when the Bible is reduced to those one-liners, it becomes easy to take things out of context and to keep yourself from experiencing all the Bible has to offer us as God's story. This also makes it easier to cut and paste what we want from the Bible as well as to ignore the rough edges of the Bible or the "blue parakeet passages" that people do not know what to do with because they do not fit neatly into our views of the Bible or religion. Ignoring these because we are focused on taking the things we want from the Bible keep us from fully experiencing God through the Bible...

I am reminded of a journal I own that has a different Bible verse on the bottom of each page. I have had times where I would flip through the pages in order to find one that fits my situation. It has occurred to me that I have treated the Bible the same way. I try to bring out of the Bible what I think I need for my situation rather than letting the Bible speak to me and change me, challenge me, or chastise me. It feels safer to just let one verse, paragraph, section, or even book of the Bible work to encourage me, but safety is not what the Bible is for. We will encounter things we like and things that will test our views and actions in ways we did not know were possible before when the Bible opens up our views rather than condensing what what want form it.

Shortcut 3: Mirrors and Inkblots

The next shortcut people take is trying to find patterns in the Bible... People seem to find patterns by seeing the Bible as a mirror. They look at Paul's patterns on what he says a church should be and apply what they see in their lives and churches. They see patterns in Jesus's behavior as Republican, Democrat, or Socialist. McKnight discussed an experiment of sorts he does every semester in one of his classes. He has a test where people answer on a scale questions about how they view Jesus. At the end is a test they take (slightly changed) on how they view themselves. “The amazing result, and the test has been field-tested by some professionals, is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them!” (p.49) Rather than letting Jesus's words and story transform us to be more like Him, we try to transform Jesus into us! To one degree or another, we all read the Bible like a Rorschach test, sweeping the Bible up into our own story rather than the other way around! We look for ways the shapes fit together to prove our points about what we want to pull out of the Bible. “Instead of becoming an opportunity for for redemption, the Bible becomes an opportunity for narcissism.” We need to work to humble ourselves to let the Bible take full control of us rather than letting our own lives, churches, traditions, wants, viewpoints, and laziness make the decisions for us.

When I was growing up, I was told what to find in the Bible. I was told to be like one thing or another based on what the Bible said. Sermons directed my attention to specific passages and characters of the Bible that told me what I should be like... I did not realize then that the reason different preachers projected different ideas from the same story was how often they put into the text what they wanted to get out of it. They are wanting to talk about what makes their marriage great (or what they are currently working on in their marriage) and find a passage to tell everyone else to do the same thing. They look at what they believe is the best idea for a church and pull passages from Paul to support that, discrediting other churches. I have seen people do the same thing on mission trips, projecting their American church through the Bible passages they choose onto people from Africa or Central/South America. Their societies are different from ours, just like ours is different from the early church's society. Pretending we are even able to do church like they did (and therefore telling other people to do it just like us) shows that we do project our views into the Bible to see it as a mirror.

Shortcut 4: Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God's Mind.

This shortcut treats the Bible as a map God cut into pieces and placed throughout the Bible. People decide they have what God wants figured out, so they stop working. They try to make out a foundation from the Bible that will leave out things that do not fit into their puzzle, the “blue parakeets” McKnight discusses. If we believe God is a god of love, then we gloss over or ignore anything that does not seem loving (such as having the Israelites destroy entire nations, including women, children, and livestock). The biggest problem is people find pieces that seem to fit, but we have no way of knowing if the puzzle is our puzzle or God's. We want things to fit, and if they seem to, we build around those rather than seeing all the Bible has to offer, often rejecting how other people piece together parts. Instead of trying to master the Bible and make it into what we want, we need to let the Bible be the Bible: allow the Bible to give everything it has to offer.

Growing up, there were plenty of passages in the Bible that did not fit to what I had been taught or looked at myself... I did not know what to do about them so we mostly made them a joke. Paul said not to engage with inappropriate talk which fits in with many other passages so we were not supposed to talk about sex, but in Ezekiel and Song of Solomon are expressions that go against that puzzle we had pieced together. Also, avoiding talking about sex does not seem to be beneficial for people concerning sexual sin, so maybe we need more discernment on how to talk about it. We have to be willing to change our views on things as the Bible dictates or we get engrained into things that are not the Bible but our own puzzles.

Shortcut 5: Maestros

This is where people look to “experts” of the Bible to interpret it for us. We go to Paul's views for how a church should be set up, ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?”, and then try to put ourselves in their contexts. However, none of us are called to live exactly like Jesus lived (and if we are, we are not doing a very good job of it). Neither are we called to live in a church in the Roman empire of 2000 years ago. The Bible speaks through different authors in their ways and times, and we need to apply what we can learn to our ways and our times. There is not one book, author, or figure with all of the answers needed. Oversimplifying things is dangerous and leaves out important information.

I have had my times of looking to Maestros. Jesus, of course, being the main one. He is God incarnate, but as John's gospel points out, they were not able to record all He said and did. That's why God has given us more to the story than just Jesus: there is more to it. I have focused at the maestro of John, calling everyone to love. I have been fixated on passages in Acts about what the church should be, using that as a maestro. In reality, any time you focus on one or two aspects, something else will slip through the cracks. My experience has taught me that I need to be diligent to always continue to search in everything God has to offer in the Bible because, although I may have read it before, I can still reach new understanding based on what else I have learned through reading and through life.

The problem with any of these shortcuts, is that we pick and choose what we think is important in the Bible. Like I stated before, I have been guilty of all of these shortcuts. I wanted to share this to help you reflect on how you read the Bible. Reading it as God's story told from different viewpoints in different times by different people. These shortcuts, although very tempting, lead us to be more “absolute” in our teachings, leading to more divisions among Christians. When people then notice a shortcut someone else has taken, like a pendulum, they swing as far to the other side in order to focus on what they believe to be important (in turn using their own shortcut). Instead, we need to see the different viewpoints and allow God to continue his story through us: The Church. The story is for us to read and continually live out with God still being a very active participant.

I have struggled to get connected to churches since being in high school. I have had churches I was a part of, but it was usually due to the work/service/ministry that I was doing. I certainly cared for the people I worked with (and still do). Although everyone I have met does not fit into these categories, I have noticed unity missing in the Church due to it being divided into three groups of people: those who want to tell others the correct way to do things, those who are looking down on others for what they think, and those trying to stand back and not step on anyone's toes. All of these can keep church from being safe and keep growth from happening. We need to be willing to listen to each others' experiences and open our minds and ears to what else God has to offer to us (since using shortcuts can lead us to stop listening once we have if figured out). I do not write this because I have everything figured out: I write because I have found a new way of looking at things that makes sense when so many other things in the past did not. I am on a spiritual journey, and I am not sure where it leads, but I would love for you to come on a journey, too.